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Biblical Translations

The Catholic Review - From Time to Time

Next month the bishops of our country will again consider approving an English translation of those parts of the Bible read publicly in church. They deal with this "again" because, while the Scriptures do not change, our English language does. One has only to read a play of Shakespeare or turn again to the Douay Bible to see how dramatically usage has changed. In 1810, Archbishop John Carroll invited the bishops of Bardstown, Boston and Philadelphia, whom he had just ordained, to remain here in Baltimore with Coadjutor Archbishop Leonard Neale for an informal council. They reviewed and made more precise for the dioceses of the United States the legislation of the Synod of Baltimore of 1791. To this general affirmation they added a new rule for all Catholic Churches in this country. Peter Gilday records that they decreed that Bishop Richard Challoner’s 1582 edition of the Rheims (New Testament, 1582) and Douay (Old Testament, 1609-1610) version would be the official translation for use "in all books of devotion and in reading the Gospel during Mass." (The Councils of Baltimore, New York, 1932, page 76) When Archbishop James Whitfield convened the First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829, the bishops again endorsed Challoner’s translation. However, they also called for a major emendation of the text, a call repeated at the Ninth Provincial Council here in 1858. They recognized that the English language continued to change and the Church needed to respond to this change. Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, who presided at the Ninth Provincial Council, undertook his own translation of the Bible, which he completed before his death in 1863. The Kenrick version did not win general acceptance or the endorsement of the bishops at the Second Plenary Council in 1866, and the Challoner text remained the standard until 1948. In that year the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine published a New Testament translation still based, however, on the Challoner Version. Meanwhile, in 1943, Pope Pius XII issued a landmark encyclical on biblical studies, which was endorsed and expanded upon in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, completed in 1965. Pope and Council alike encouraged scholars to go back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts in preparing translations for our day. The Latin Vulgate itself, upon which the Douay-Rheims Version was based, was also redone in the light of research into the original text. With an Apostolic Constitution, Pope John Paul II commended the official edition of this new Vulgate in 1986. The Second Vatican Council’s encouragement of a translation based on the original languages led the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to undertake a completely new translation, know as the New American Bible. Published in 1970, with subsequent confirmation by the Holy See, it has been used since then in the Lectionary with which we are familiar. However, many believe that, in the Gospel passages especially, the translators in their efforts for clarity sometimes failed to capture the dignity and the nuances of the original Greek text. And in the intervening years, the English language has continued to change. This led to the Revised New American Bible translation, which for several years has been discussed as the basis for a Lectionary text and now will come to the bishops for approval. The Lectionary, if it wins approval, will continue the practice of a New Testament translation based primarily on the Greek text. The Old Testament portion of the Lectionary awaits completion by scholars who are now working with the original Hebrew and, with respect to several books, the original Greek. The aim of the translation is stated in the preface to the New Testament text: "The editors have wished to produce a version in English that reflects contemporary English usage and is readily understandable to ordinary educated people, but one that will be recognized as dignified speech…." The preface mentions that: "The experience of actual use of the New Testament of the New American Bible, especially in oral proclamation, has provided a basis for further improvement." For example, in translating the Beatitudes the 1970 version reads, "How blest are the poor in spirit: the reign of God is theirs." The new version has it, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 5:3) This translation returns to the most traditional "kingdom" which is also more easily understood. Further on, the 1970 text has, "Blest are the single-hearted, for they shall see God." The new translations reads, "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God." (Mt. 5:8) In these and other passages we have a clear, more dignified and very accurate rendering of the original and, incidentally, texts which often return to the time-tested language of the 1948 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine translation. "Inclusive language" is an issue frequently mentioned in connection with this translation. Here again it is not the Bible which has changed, but our own language--and the changes seem more pronounced in North America than in other parts of the English-speaking world. By "inclusive language" we are not talking about the "vertical inclusive" changes which some have urged. The Scriptural references to God have always been in the third person masculine, a use of the masculine technically described as grammatical, not biological. The issue with the translation is rather one of "horizontal" language: when Paul addressed his readers as "brothers" he surely did not wish to exclude the women who read or heard his words. As newspaper style manuals and the practice of most publications attest, there has been a shift in usage, at least in North America. The school texts our young people read and the songs they sing usually reflect this shift. Several years ago the Holy See confirmed its willingness to work with the bishops of the United States to update the Lectionary to meet this newly recognized need. Because, as the preface to the new translation notes, scholars still are not in agreement about how to resolve all the specific linguistic questions, three of our bishops who are also scholars met earlier this year with English-speaking officials in Rome to reach practical conclusions about individual texts. As a result, the Lectionary draft now awaiting final approval will see the familiar "brothers" expanded, where the sense of Greek requires it, to "brothers and sisters." As a result of the translators’ approach, terms which are already inclusive in the Greek will be rendered as inclusive also in the English. Thus, the 1970 text ran, "Blest too are the peacemakers; they shall be called sons of God." The new translation states, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Mt. 5:9) Another issue is the use of the word man. The preface of the new translation observes, that, while many do not accept the traditional, generic sense of man in English, "it is retained in cases where no fully satisfactory equivalent can be found." Again the results should be a clear, comprehensible faithful translation--a help to our own understanding and prayerful participation in the Liturgy. For all that has been accomplished so far, we owe a great debt of gratitude to scholars in both our country and at the Holy See. They have been seeking to make the Holy Scriptures as accessible as possible to all our people while at the same time keeping faith with the traditions of the Church.